The Kung Fu of Everything

Why do kung fu movies inspire us even when we’re not martial artists? Because the virtues embodied by the masters are universal. That’s not a coincidence.

Translated literally, “kung fu” means “skill achieved through hard work and discipline,” Shannon Lee explains in Be Water, My Friend. It refers to any ability earned with practice, effort, and patience.

Therefore, “it is possible to have good kung fu in anything,” Shannon says: “mathematics kung fu, mothering kung fu, public speaking kung fu.” You can even have “life kung fu” or “you kung fu.”

How many hours have you dedicated to learning how to navigate life’s many challenges? How much have you practiced being your true self? Everything is learnable, and in every skill, there is at least some learning at its root. That is the message.

While there is something to be said about picking your kung fu and fully dedicating yourself to it, there is also comfort in knowing you can get better at anything, even if you might not become the best in the world at it.

I was never a great nor a particularly eager cook, but since moving in with my girlfriend, I enjoy it a lot more. Cooking finally has a purpose that extends beyond feeding myself, and so I’ve started cooking regularly. I pick recipes, buy ingredients, and don’t mind if it takes me an hour or two to get everything right. Sometimes, I even improvise and it works out. In other words, I’ve come a long way from barely being able to make scrambled eggs. I now have some cooking kung fu.

Perhaps the best part about the ubiquity of kung fu, however, is that it allows you to appreciate skill in others. When your waiter serves you the cappuccino in one fluid motion off his tray, all while wearing as mile, your waiter has kung fu. When a cyclist shows the awareness to stop and let you cross the street, the cyclist has kung fu. And when your boss tells you to leave early because she can sense you have somewhere important to be, your boss has kung fu.

Everything is learnable, and in every skill, there is at least some learning at its root. That learning took practice, effort, and patience. Somebody showed up and brought those virtues, and that’s why you now get to admire said skill. Everything has kung fu — be grateful when you see it.